Sunday, February 28, 2010

Measure Given, Measure Received (part 5 of 5)

Throughout His “sermon,” Jesus has been helping His hearers to actively call to mind the words of Moses from Deuteronomy concerning the blessing and the curse. At the same time, He wanted to turn their hearts towards those to whom they were supposed to be shining as God’s light. While they may have been naturally inclined, upon hearing about those that hate and persecute them, to think “Then the Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies, on those who hate and persecute you” (Deuteronomy 30:7), Jesus implored them to show love and kindness and favorable treatment.

Thinking back to Jesus’ words of “great reward,” we rightly inquire as to what that great reward for loving their enemies, doing good, and lending with no expectation of return would be. Jesus says, “you will be sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35b). What does it mean to be a son of the Most High? It meant that they would be children of the kingdom of God. This ran counter to the then current mindset, because it was generally believed that the kingdom of God would be established in their land and on their behalf, thereby making them sons of the Most High, by God’s messiah gaining victory over the enemies of God’s covenant people, in the manner of King David. Jesus sets this aside, indicating that the kingdom of God is going to be established through the demonstration of grace, love and compassion. God’s people were not to take up arms to somehow aid God in His work or to force His hand. No, they were to love their enemies, and in so doing, receive the long-looked-to reward of God entering into history on behalf of His people.

Why is it that doing all of these things for their enemies will make them sons of the Most High? It is “because He is kind to ungrateful and evil people” (6:35c). This, of course, could be construed as a direct statement against God’s people. They would have known very well, that throughout their history, their God had been quite kind to them, when it was undeserved. Throughout all of their ingratitude, and throughout all of their turning to idolatry and actions against the covenant that made them be the opposite of the light to the nations and His instrument for dealing with evil in the world that God had intended them to be, God was very kind. Jesus adds, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (6:36). God had chosen Israel for Himself, from all nations, and been merciful towards them in all His dealing, in spite of the evil which had been wrought by their hands. If God could be merciful to those that should rightly have been looked upon as His enemies, then why could His people not be merciful when dealing with those that did not have the advantages of being God’s chosen people and having received His revelations of mercy?

Owing to God’s special revelation to them, and understanding that all of the other nations were at a significant disadvantage when compared to His own people, Jesus says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (6:37a). Unfortunately, Israel continued to stand against and pass judgment against their enemies, rather than coming into union with God’s Messiah (Jesus the Christ) and following His example of love and compassion towards all peoples, Jew and Gentile, so there would come a time of great judgment when the Romans would wipe out Jerusalem and destroy the Temple. Jesus said, “do not condemn, and you will not be condemned” (6:37b). This too, was ignored, so in that day of final Roman domination, condemnation came. Jesus said, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (6:37c). Because they did not forgive---because they did not humble themselves, pray, and seek His face, God did not hear from heaven, He did not forgive their sin, and He did not heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14). The curse was not lifted, the exile was not ended, and they would not hear God say to them that He was going to “reverse your captivity and have pity on you” (Deuteronomy 30:3a).

It is then that Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you: A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure you use will be the measure you receive” (6:38). So after this lengthy examination, can we agree that, in no way, does this statement have anything to do with giving as we generally think about it, or as we generally position this verse? What is it that God wanted to give His people? According to Deuteronomy, which would have been the framework for the way that the people understood their situation, God wanted to reverse the captivity and have pity on His people. Jesus was effectively saying, “Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and disaster on the other” (Deuteronomy 30:15). Choosing the way of love and compassion, was choosing the way of life, rather than the way of death, which was judgment, condemnation, and lack of forgiveness. Choosing life, which would be made possible by their trusting in their God by trusting that Jesus was the Messiah, would have God saying, “you will live and become numerous and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are about to possess” (30:16b). They would become true sons of the Most High.

Jesus expected the people of God---the people who claimed a loyal allegiance to the creative, providential, and covenant God---to give more than they could ever imagine. They were to give love where it may not have been deserved, for they had received love when it had not been deserved. They were to do good to those who hate them. They were to offer blessings to those who cursed them. They were to give compassion to those that struck them. They were to be willing to give up their possessions, even to an enemy. They were to give the withholding of judgment. They were to give the withholding of condemnation. They were to give forgiveness, for they had certainly experienced all of these things through the patience and promises of their God. In giving all of these things, they would come to realize how much they had already been given. Indeed, in that realization, a good measure would be effectively poured into their laps; and indeed, they would come to understand that loving their enemies stemmed from their love of God (as God loved them even though they had continually been His enemies). Finally, they would realize the measure of mercy they had already received, and in turn, realize that such was the measure that they should be willing to give.

Measure Given, Measure Received (part 4)

By now, we should be starting to get a sense of where this is going, as Jesus now says, “Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your possessions back from the person who takes them away” (Luke 6:30). For His brethren, talk of “possessions” would be connected to their land. God’s promise and directive to Israel, dating back to the time of Moses and Joshua, was to possess the land. This possessing the land was a part of God’s special blessings upon His people. In their present situation, as has been pointed out, though they living in their promised land, they did not possess the land. Rome possessed their land. Illegitimate rulers (the Herods) possessed their land. On a secondary level, though it may have been the case that individuals were able to own pieces of land, in the legal sense, oppressive taxation would have forced many to either sell or turn over their land, to satisfy the tax obligation. This would be yet another reason to despise their oppressors, their enemies, and those who cursed them, but Jesus follows up on this and says, “Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you” (6:31).

Though the oppression was heavy, and His people had plenty of reasons to complain, to demand more just treatment, or to look to Rome and to their provincial rulers and say, “We’ll begin respecting you when you begin treating us better,” Jesus puts the onus on His hearers. This, of course, is His kingdom model. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… Give, and it will be given to you… For the measure you use will be the measure you receive” (6:27-28, 38a,c). Did the Romans deserve to be overthrown and driven from their land? Probably so, but that was irrelevant. The point would be driven home and made all the more poignant when we consider that His hearers would have been able to look around them and see some Roman soldiers.

Having talked about treating others in the same way that you desire to be treated, Jesus goes on and says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” (6:32). This brings up another question. Who is Jesus talking about when He speaks of sinners? This goes back to a consideration of who we can find in His audience. Remember, He had drawn people from Judea, Jerusalem, Tyre, and Sidon---Jews and Gentiles. So when “sinners” are mentioned, we are not to take this as a general reference to people who are not “saved,” or who engage in the things that we are so quick to label as sin, as we are likely to do with our modern mindset. “Sinners,” as opposed to “saints,” would be a reference to those that were outside of God’s covenant. At the same time, we have to be careful to not hear this as Jesus passing judgment on those outside the covenant, for Jesus would say that He came to call sinners into His covenant. In that day, “sinner” was another term for Gentile. So when Jesus spoke of sinners, it was a simple matter of His Jewish listeners to look around them and see a number of sinners, with all of them eagerly listening to this Man that might be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah.

These are striking statements. Jesus is telling His fellow Jews that, as God’s covenant people, they have a greater obligation to do all of these things of which He has been speaking. They were not justified in waiting around for better treatment from Rome. The idea that they were under no obligation to love until loved was patently dismissed. They were to treat others as they wanted to be treated. Loving those who loved them would not mark them out as God’s covenant people, for this was true of all men, Jew and Gentile (sinners). The higher standard---the true way of the kingdom of God that was the hope of their day---was to love one’s enemies, though you felt them completely undeserving of that love. To that, Jesus adds, “And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same” (6:33).

These two questions and statements are neatly tied to what He has already said. Jesus had said to those “who are listening”, who had ears to hear, to love their enemies and to do good to those who hate you. Even the Gentiles, those upon whom His Jewish brethren would look down and dismiss, Jesus says, do good to those who do good to them. There is nothing extraordinary about that. Tying in His directives concerning the person who takes away our coat, to which you add your tunic (6:29), and not asking for one’s possessions back from those who take them away, Jesus says, “And if you lend to those from you hope to be repaid, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, so that they may be repaid in full” (6:34). By now, Jesus’ point is made, so He adds, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back” (6:35). Why would they do these things? What would be the point? All of this, it would seem, would only serve to maintain and deepen their subjection to Rome, extending their exile from God’s promises to them. To such a thought, Jesus says, “Then your reward will be great” (6:35).

Friday, February 26, 2010

Measure Given, Measure Received (part 3)

We can go deeper into this issue of blessing those who curse you. Not only does the presence of the Romans as the rulers of God’s covenant people and their land serve as a daily reminder that God’s curse is still upon them, but these words from Jesus would serve as a reminder of the curse of the Roman cross. Rome used the cross as a tool for execution and as a means of the expression of their power. Historical records indicate that Rome was not hesitant in employing crucifixion, sometimes crucifying thousands of people at one time. As if it was not enough that Jesus’ hearers would have seen or heard about fellow citizens in their day and throughout their recent history that had been crucified by Rome, there was also the words of Deuteronomy that indicated that anyone hanged on a tree was cursed by God.

The threat of this curse, under Rome’s dominion, was an ever-present reality hanging over the heads of all peoples that were subject to Rome, and owing to the words found in their books of the law, carried an even greater and more ominous weight for the people of God. With this two-fold examination of Jesus’ directive to “bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28a), and the rejoinder to “pray for those who mistreat you” (6:28b), the words that Jesus spoke while suffering through His execution become even more poignant and meaningful. Essentially, we find Jesus practicing what He preached when He says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (23:34a). Though this statement by Jesus is omitted by many important manuscripts, what it conveys fits very well with the message that He preached.

With such light cast upon the text, we are in a much better position to move forward in our quest to better comprehend what Jesus means when He says, “Give, and it will be given to you… For the measure you use will be the measure you receive” (6:38a,c) We must always resist the temptation to pull isolated verses out of their context in order to meet a perceived need or to pursue an ideological agenda. Remember, the Gospels are biographical, historical narratives that are designed to make a theological point. They are not merely collections of random sayings or high-minded teachings. If we treat them as such, we will most likely miss their connection to the Old Testament, which also functions as a grand, historical narrative that makes a theological point. By failing to adequately tackle statements in their social, historical, cultural, and literary context, we do ourselves a grave disservice.

With the points that have been made thus far (parts 1 &2), we are better positioned to become one of Jesus’ first-century hearers, and feel the full weight of His word when He says, “To the person who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well, and from the person who takes away your coat, do not withhold your tunic either” (6:29-30). Though Luke does not make mention of it, it is worth mentioning Jesus’ directive, found in Matthew, in which He says, “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matthew 5:41). In Matthew’s “Sermon on the mount”, this follows Jesus’ statement about the tunic. Luke has Jesus offering this teaching on a plain rather than on a mountain. This is not to be perceived as a contradiction, as we must be realistic, understanding that Jesus would have repeated such things numerous times in numerous places. We need only think of a campaigning politician in order to make this connection.

Now, though we may hear such “second mile” talk as a principle of good-hearted, Christian service, those who heard it would not be thinking in that way. They would have immediately thought of the requirement of their subservience to Rome, that a Roman solider could requisition anybody into service to carry his gear, or his pack, for one mile. Jesus says to not only go that first mile, but to offer to go a second mile as well. Why? Well, numerous reasons come to mind. One reason would be that in doing so, that member of God’s people could make an impression on that soldier, becoming a light to him as God intended His people to be. Another reason would be the fact that, at the end of that one mile, the solider is likely to requisition another person for the next mile. Going the second mile would alleviate that necessity, and also enable the one doing the carrying to relieve one of his fellow brethren from having to be called into the task of bearing up under that burden. This fits quite well with the Apostle Paul’s instruction and exhortation to the Galatians to “Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Paul would have been very familiar with this practice, and apparently, also familiar with the words of Jesus (“the law of Christ”), as the word that he uses for burden there (unlike the one he will later use in the fifth verse), refers to a soldier’s pack.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Measure Given, Measure Received (part 2)

Having laid a bit of contextual foundation, we can now commence our attempt at figuring out what exactly is being said by Jesus when He says, “Give, and it will be given to you: A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure you use will me the measure you receive” (Luke 6:38). With everything that has been said to this point (in part 1), clearly, we cannot simply look at this verse and think that Jesus is talking about giving and getting in terms of finances and material items. Additionally, it’s going to take some work to get there.

To get the point, we have to go back to the twenty-seventh verse in this chapter. As we do that, we have to systematically build on the foundation that has been laid. There, Jesus says, “But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies” (6:27a). Who are their enemies? The Jews in the audience (from Judea and Jerusalem) would have heard Jesus speaking about their enemies, the Romans. They are being told to love them, when they wanted to have nothing to do with them, and wanted to eject them from their land and their lives. Now remember, the One saying these things is the man that might very well be the Messiah and the Son of God (both terms for Israel’s promised king). The messiah is supposed to lead the revolution that defeats their enemies, but instead, He is insisting that the enemies be loved. This is strange and unexpected. Those in His audience that hail from Tyre and Sidon (presumably Gentiles), may find the Romans to be an irritant, but ultimately, they would not harbor the same feelings of animosity towards Rome as would the Jews, for reasons we shall see later.

However, so as to actively engage the whole of His audience, we can hear Jesus adding, “do good to those who hate you” (6:27b), as a sympathetic nod to the Gentiles. The Gentiles would not be looked upon by the Jews with quite the negativity with which they viewed and in which they held the Romans. They would, unfortunately, be held in extreme disfavor (hated) by the Jews. Though having said this, we do not limit the feelings of hatred to the Jews only. The Romans, having had to deal with stubborn and rebellious and zealous Jews for such a long period of time, might very well have come to hate them as much as they were hated by them. Regardless of the specific direction of the statement, each person that heard these words would be able to search their own heart. Hatred was a two-way street.

The point is, we have to continually connect the words of Jesus with the very real, historical situation in which they were spoken and which vested them with meaning. That is the only way for the words to have any meaning for us today. These were not imagined or potential enemies. No, they were real. He was not talking about some nebulous sense of feelings of hatred. He was talking about very real hatred. Jesus told His fellow countrymen that they should love enemies that oppress them and tax them into slavery. He told all of His hearers (Jew & Gentile) to do good to those that would probably be content with seeing them dead, simply so that they would not have to look at or deal with them. It is through understanding this that we are then able to devise an ethic under which we can operate and know that we are acting according to the will of God, in submission to the dictates of our Lord and King.

Jesus continues and says, “bless those who curse you” (6:28a). Once again, we have a specific, historical reference. His Jewish hearers were quite familiar with what was implied when the word “curse” was used. Jesus was not talking about people that might say bad things about you. No. With these words, He is referencing Israel’s historical narrative and the covenant promises of their God. The people knew that they were still living under God’s curse. They knew that they were under the curse because they were dominated by foreign powers. This is what God had promised in the book of Deuteronomy if His people failed to live up to Torah, and failed to fulfill their covenant responsibilities to be a light to the nations.

They had been in subjection to foreign powers since the day of Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon, having been subject to Babylon, Persia, Greece, Egypt, Syria, and now Rome. As long as God’s people did not rule themselves, then they were still experiencing the curse that God had promised to bring upon them. Because of this, not only was Rome their hated enemy that probably hated them in return, but Rome also would be incorrectly viewed as the power that was cursing them. If Rome was gone, then so too, they might think, would God’s curse be gone. This was just one more reason to desire Rome’s overthrow and to begrudge living under their rule. What Jesus was demanding was truly a revolutionary mindset! Love Rome? Ask God to bless Rome? Unthinkable!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Measure Given, Measure Received (part 1)

Give, and it will be given to you: A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure you use will be the measure you receive. – Luke 6:38 (NET)

This is a passage that we both love and hate. We love it because it is always presented in the context of us giving our time, talent, and our treasure. We love it, because when this verse is quoted, we are told that if we will freely give in these areas, then God will pour out tremendous blessings upon us. In all honesty, who among us would not want that. We also hate it because most of us tend to be a bit selfish when it comes to our time, our talent, and our treasure (time, skills, money, and possessions), and secretly wish that we did not have to give of these things in order to receive those blessings. Unfortunately, one has to rip this passage right out of its context in order to make it apply to what we generally associate with giving. Beyond that, to make this passage apply to our giving not only lifts it from its context, but it makes it a free-floating aphorism, almost completely disconnected from what comes before it. This was not Jesus’ method.

His words applied to the situations in which the people found themselves. Though He spoke timeless truths, they are only timeless because they are grounded in historical reality. If Jesus walked around simply offering high-minded principles that offered His people nothing useful for dealing with their present, historical, every-day concerns, rather than words that were specifically associated with the expectation that God had obligated Himself to act within history on behalf of His people, then He would have been completely dismissed as just one more wandering preacher. However, because Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God that was the hope and expectation of God’s people---which provided the context for everything He said and did---as He spoke with authority and confirmed His speaking with signs and wonders, the people listened and followed and even tried to make Him king.

So in this passage from which our text comes, of course, Jesus is speaking. He has been speaking at length. To whom was Jesus speaking? He was speaking to “a large number of His disciples” that “had gathered along with a vast multitude from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon” (6:17b). Though Luke here is recording one particular instance, we have to keep in mind that it is quite likely that Jesus would have spoken the words recorded here in the sixth chapter of Luke on more than one occasion (the “Blessed are’s” of this chapter are spoken in a different setting in the fifth chapter of Matthew). Here, Luke reports that Jesus’ hearers consist of people from Judea, Jerusalem, Tyre and Sidon. This indicates that it is a mixed group, being comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, as Tyre and Sidon were cities that were predominantly populated by Gentiles.

The fact that there are both Jews and Gentiles in His audience is an important point and must be taken into consideration as we examine His words. Not only are there Gentiles present, but we must never lose sight of the fact that they are in Roman-controlled territory. It is Rome that is in power here. For quite some time, and up to that day, there was a strong under-current of revolutionary fervor against the Roman oppressors. God’s people (Israel/Judah) wanted to escape from Rome’s oppression, and Rome was their enemy. While holding that fact in our minds as we embark upon an examination of the text, we can continue adding more and more realism to the situation, by being aware of the fact that there are most likely Roman soldiers present and within ear-shot of Jesus.

Why would that be the case? Well, to this point Jesus has invoked near-riots in Nazareth, He has attracted crowds in Capernaum, He has begun calling together a close-knit and hand-picked group of chosen followers, He has managed to convince a tax collector to leave his work and follow Him, and He was regularly drawing attention from the religious leaders. All of these things, taken together, could very well be viewed by the Romans as the beginnings of yet another messianic/revolutionary movement that was designed to come against their rule by force of arms. It is quite reasonable to presume that the Roman authorities would have heard reports about this Jesus fellow, and would have their eye on Him at some level. By this time, the Romans have had plenty of experience in identifying and dealing with those that opposed them, especially in Palestine, and would be keeping a watchful eye on situations that might quickly escalate. Large gatherings of a diverse group of people around a charismatic and dynamic individual would be one of those situations. So as not to give Rome a reason to move against Him, we can imagine that Jesus takes all of this into consideration and is going to be measuring His words quite carefully.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hezekiah's Prayer (part 2)

Moving on from his lamentation in regards to day and night, Hezekiah goes on to pray, “Like a swallow or a thrush I chirp, I coo like a dove; my eyes grow tired from looking up at the sky” (Isaiah 38:14a). How often must we imagine that Jesus, in the midst of groans and grunts and gasps of pain, cast His eyes toward the heavens? Indeed, it must have been a weary cry when, eyes directed heavenward, as He sees the darkness rolling into the daytime sky, that Jesus makes His plaintive cry of “Eli, Elli, lema sabachthani? That is, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46b) In correlation, because of his wearisome looking to the sky, Hezekiah says, “O sovereign Master, I am oppressed; help me!” (38:14b) In humble acceptance, Hezekiah concludes, “What can I say? He has decreed and acted” (38:15a), much like Jesus, in the garden before beginning His travailing ordeal, would say “My Father, let this cup pass from Me! Yet not what I will, but what You will” (Matthew 26:39b).

Skipping ahead to the sixteenth verse of this chapter, we read “O sovereign Master, Your decrees can give men life; may years of health be restored to me. Restore my health and preserve my life” (38:16). No doubt, Jesus stood resolute on such a promise. He trusted that His Father, His sovereign Master, could decree life. While Hezekiah would enjoy an addition of fifteen years, the decree of the sovereign Master towards Jesus would result in a Resurrection to an indestructible, eternal life. Hezekiah experienced a restoration of health and a preservation of life, but for him, physical decay would never give up on its relentless march towards the grave. For Jesus, it was so much more than a restoration and a preservation. Jesus’ restoration was a complete renewal of His physical being, as He was given a glorified, Resurrection body, suited for the new creation of God’s eternal kingdom that had begun with His Resurrection. Jesus did not have His life preserved. He was given a new life, an eternal life. On both counts, that of restoration and preservation in the manner experienced and enjoyed by our Lord and Savior, those that are in union with Christ await the same.

Hezekiah exclaims, “Look, the grief I experienced was for my benefit. You delivered me from the Pit of oblivion. For You removed all my sins from Your sight” (38:17). Clearly, Hezekiah was made to be thankful for the sickness and the deliverance. Not only that, but by connecting his sickness with sin, Hezekiah demonstrated that he understood that the sickness that he carried resulted from his violations of the divine covenant. Not only was sickness was a curse that entered into the world with man’s fall, but sickness was also associated with Israel’s failure to keep covenant with their God. God had promised this to His people, while also promising that if they repented from their failure to keep covenant, He would remove the associated curses.

As it applied to the whole of God’s people, so it also applied to the king. Hezekiah, as the representative of the people, linked the removal of his sickness with the removal of sins. Furthermore, because being conquered by a foreign people was part of God’s curse that would be directed toward His people if they were to completely disregard His covenant, and as this recovery from sickness and its attendant prayer follows closely on the heels of the expulsion of Assyria from Judah when it looked as if they were about to suffer the same fate as the northern kingdom of Israel, the removal of his sins, as evidenced by his healing, is also closely linked to God’s removal of the sins of His people, as evidenced by God Himself defeating the Assyrians and sending them away.

Throughout the Old Testament, the kings of Israel and Judah were the representatives of God’s people. When David numbered the people, though this was his action, the people suffered. When Manasseh brought Judah to the pinnacle of its idolatry, it was in conjunction with this that God declared, with no reversal (though the judgment would be briefly stayed), that Judah would be conquered and sent into captivity. In addition, Israel also held to the idea of a vicarious sacrifice for the removal of sins, which we see in the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement. We see the representative principle at work here with Hezekiah, and it is in this light that we can hear these words of Hezekiah’s prayer on Jesus’ lips.

Jesus could quite easily say that “the grief (or illness) I experienced was for My benefit,” as He could reflect on the suffering servant prophecy of Isaiah fifty-three, fully convinced that His suffering would benefit not only His people, but Himself as well. Though He was walking the path of death, it is quite easy to hear Jesus say, with faith like that which was exhibited by Abraham when he confidently declared that both he and Isaac would return from the mountain of sacrifice, that “You delivered Me from the Pit of oblivion.” However, it would only be as Israel’s King, as Israel’s representative, as the representative of all of those that would come to call Him King, in substitution for His people, that Jesus could say “You removed all My sins from Your sight.” This could only occur through God’s King bearing God’s cursing on behalf of God’s people. It is because of this execution of faithfulness that Hezekiah could say, “The living person, the living person, he gives you thanks, as I do today” (38:19a). We that share in the blessed and vital union join with him in such a prayer.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Hezekiah's Prayer (part 1)

This is the prayer of Hezekiah of Judah when he was sick and then recovered from his illness – Isaiah 38:9 (NET)

As we are able to find correspondence between the lives of King David and Jesus, and King Solomon and Jesus, so too are we able to find a linking of King Hezekiah and Jesus. In his prayer, this link is quite explicit. We hear Hezekiah saying, “I thought, ‘In the middle of my life I must walk through the gates of Sheol, I am deprived of the rest of my years’.” (38:10) Like Hezekiah, Jesus, in the middle of His life and ministry, walked through the gates of Sheol, into death. This was something that Jesus anticipated throughout the duration of His ministry, as He frequently spoke of the expectation of the premature cutting off of His natural life.

Hezekiah thought, “I will no longer see the Lord in the land of the living, I will no longer look on humankind with the inhabitants of the world” (38:11). When he was sick, Hezekiah expected death to come. Jesus also expected death to come. Because he had been sick and expecting death, but was allowed to recover and continue, Hezekiah figuratively experienced a death and resurrection. However, not only did Jesus expect a Resurrection, but He received one as well. At the same time, He could agree with Hezekiah that He would no longer see the Lord in the land of the living either. How can that be? It is because the world into which Jesus was resurrected was a changed world, now subject to Him as its King. It would no longer merely be the land of the living, but the land of eternal life through union with Him. Jesus would come forth from the grave into a new creation that had been inaugurated with His Resurrection.

He Himself had been given a transformed, resurrected body, animated by the power of God. Because of that, He could no longer look out upon humankind as merely another one of the inhabitants of the old world that had now been fundamentally changed. He was different. He had received a glorified body. It is not the case that He would no longer look upon man as an inhabitant of the world because He was going to stay in the grave. Rather, He would look upon man with new eyes, as the first of a different form of humanity. With His Resurrection, Jesus now inhabited a different world. Through belief in Him, by faith, His disciples would come to inhabit that same world, with a down payment of Resurrection power that would allow them to look upon humankind, not as one of its inhabitants, but as new creations, viewing man with the compassion and love that comes as a gift from God, desirous to tell forth the Gospel of Jesus that is an invitation to share in this inaugurated new creation.

Hezekiah continues, and we read “My dwelling place is taken away from me like a shepherd’s tent. I rolled up my life like a weaver rolls cloth; from the loom he cuts me off. You turn day into night and end my life” (38:12). Likewise, in this we hear and see Jesus. His physical body, the one that went to the cross, that dwelling place in which God had struck a tent for a period of time, was taken away from Him. It was, of course, replaced with a new body, which, if we are in union with Him (believing the Gospel), provides the context for our hope for the same.

Hezekiah speaks of the turning of day into night and the end of his life, and we think of the darkness that crept over the land when Jesus hung upon the cross, as physical death crept over and eventually consumed Him. We read, “I cry out until morning; like a lion he shatters all my bones; you turn day into night and end my life” (38:13). As we once again read about the turning of day into night and the ending of life, we reflect on the fact that the ordeal that Jesus underwent lasted from evening to morning, and continued on the through the middle of the day. Also, though His bones were not broken, He was scourged, which might very well have left Him with exposed bones, as victims of scourging were often flayed to the very bone.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Broken The Permanent Treaty

The earth is defiled by its inhabitants, for they have violated laws, disregarded the regulation, and broken the permanent treaty. – Isaiah 24:5 (NET)

Before we reach the verse above, we read that “The earth will be completely devastated and thoroughly ransacked. For the Lord has decreed this judgment. The earth dries up and withers; the prominent people of the earth fade away” (24:3-4). Though this was not God’s intention for His good creation, this is the situation wrought by man’s rebellion in the garden. Man was able to have this impact on the earth because He was a creature made in God’s image. He was specifically tasked by God and was given dominion over the creation, to steward it wisely, and failed to do so, introducing evil and its effects into the world.

In Adam’s faithlessness to his God-given responsibilities and limitations, the earth was most certainly defiled. Adam willfully and egregiously violated the law that had been given to him by his Creator. Yes, he most certainly disregarded the regulation. God had designed His creation to be permanently good, and for man to tend His good creation in perpetuity, but that permanence proved to be fleeting. As Isaiah writes, mankind broke “the permanent treaty.” Another rendering of the Hebrew would be “the everlasting covenant.” Adam, representing all mankind, violated the everlasting covenant of God. What was the result of this defiling, violation, disregarding, and breaking? “To the woman He said, ‘I will greatly increase your labor pains; with pain you will give birth to children. You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you’. But to Adam He said, ‘Because you obeyed your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, “You must not eat from it,” cursed is the ground thanks to you; in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, but you will eat of the grain of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat food until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you will return’.” (Genesis 3:16-19) Yes, the Lord decreed this judgment. The earth would be devastated and ransacked by thorns and thistles and pain and hostility. Though the earth had produced bountifully, in effect it would now be dried up and withered. Man would indeed fade away into dust.

Isaiah would write, “So a treaty curse devours the earth; its inhabitants pay for their guilt. This is why the inhabitants of the earth disappear, and are reduced to just a handful of people” (24:6). As we continue to focus our thoughts on what occurred with Adam, we can see that God cursed the earth because of the broken treaty, the ignored agreement, the disregarded covenant. As a result, man has continually suffered from death and decay and all that goes with man stepping outside of the bounds of God’s covenant (sin). Yet again, Isaiah speaks of the fact that man fades away into death, with his speaking of the disappearance of the inhabitants of the earth. As has been said, the impact of man’s sin extends beyond himself, reaching the created order, which is why “The new wine dries up, the vines shrivel up,” and with terminology that puts us in mind of Romans chapter eight, “all those who like to celebrate groan” (24:7).
Bringing an awareness of all of these things forward to the time in which he was writing, Isaiah could easily have looked around him, considered what it was that Israel was charged with doing and being under God’s covenant, and determined that Israel had done the same thing. Whereas Israel, now representing mankind, was supposed to be the means by which God revealed Himself, dealt with the problem of evil in the world, and functioned as a shining light of God’s glory to draw all men to Himself and bring them into reconciliation under His covenant, they were instead actively engaging in further defiling of the earth. God’s plan, beginning with Abraham, was to reverse the devastation of the curse through His covenant people, but instead they contributed to its ongoing devastation. Israel, of course, had been given specific laws by their God, and they violated them almost unceasingly. From time to time, Israel would recognize their violations and come to repentance, but for the most part, they utterly disregarded the regulations that had been delivered to them. Yes, just like Adam, sadly, God’s people had broken their everlasting covenant. For that, devastating judgment of cursing and exile would come upon them. This would occur as an outworking of God’s justice. He had brought them into a treaty---an everlasting covenant with Him---and the execution of coming destruction was the ongoing demonstration of God’s righteousness (covenant faithfulness) towards His people and towards His creation. Ultimately, it would take a Redeemer, a Messiah, for God Himself to act in the flesh, to repair the treaty and to set His people and this world to rights, doing so through a people, a renewed Israel, that live in a believing covenantal union with Jesus.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Treaty Dissolved

Your treaty with death will be dissolved; your agreement with Sheol will not last. When the overwhelming judgment sweeps by, you will be overrun by it. – Isaiah 28:18 (NET)

Isaiah is speaking to the people of God. The words of the text are an answer to the attitude of the people of Jerusalem, who say, “We have made a treaty with death, with Sheol we have made an agreement. When the overwhelming judgment sweeps by it will not reach us” (28:15a). It is interesting to find out why they would say such a thing. Isaiah reports the people’s words: “For we have made a lie our refuge, we have hidden ourselves in a deceitful word” (28:15b). The “sovereign Master, the Lord” (28:16a) has a response to such words. His response provides the context for the dissolution of the treaty with death and the agreement with Sheol. He says, “Look, I am laying in Zion an approved stone, set in place as a precious cornerstone for the foundation” (28:16b). Any talk of cornerstones should immediately force us to turn our attention to the One Who is referred to as “the Cornerstone.” In Acts, Peter stands before the “rulers, elders, and experts in the law” (4:5), and declares that “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, that has become the cornerstone” (4:11). As we understand Jesus, the Messiah, as “the cornerstone,” it is not difficult to comprehend why a treaty with death would be dissolved in connection with the laying of that cornerstone.

If we look back to the events of Eden and the fall of man, could we not say that man, in effect, made an agreement, a treaty, with death? Adam knew God’s promise to him. God had said, “You may eat freely from every tree of the orchard, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will die” (Genesis 2:16b-17). Adam knew the consequences for disobedience, unfaithfulness, and rebellion, but he chose to eat of the fruit. In essence, he willfully entered into a treaty with death, in that in his actions, death was allowed to make an entrance into God’s good creation. It could also be said that Adam (and Eve) made a lie his refuge, and that he hid himself in a deceitful word, as the serpent in the garden was believed when it said, “Surely you will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil” (Genesis 3:4b-5). Ironically, it was in this rebellion that the divine image in which man had been created, was marred.

When God’s Messiah went to the cross, He underwent God’s “overwhelming judgment,” as the wrath of God was poured out upon Him, as He underwent the cursing that was the lot of God’s covenant people, doing so because He represented all of God’s people (then and now) as their King. The judgment was first one of condemnation, as it sent Jesus into the grave. Secondly, though, the judgment was one of liberation, as death and the grave could not hold Him, and He went forth for the inauguration of a new creation and a new humanity, with Resurrection power. Isaiah wrote that “the Lord will rise up, as He did at Mount Perazim, He will rouse Himself, as He did in the valley of Gibeon” (28:21a). Now, this “rising up” is not a correlation to the Resurrection of Jesus, but as we think about the cornerstone, the dissolution of the treaty with death, and the breaking of the agreement with Sheol in connection with overwhelming judgment, we look ahead to the next part of the verse which tells us that the Lord rises up on behalf of His people “to accomplish His work” (28:21b).

What work was to be accomplished? The work, of course, was the restoration of His people and His creation, delivering them from exile and bondage to corruption, reversing the agreement of faithlessness that brought death into this world. This work that was to be accomplished is said to be “His peculiar work” (28:21c). It is said that God would rise up “to perform His task” (28:21d), and that task is referred to as “His strange task” (28:21e). We can look upon the what is sometimes referred to as the “Christ-event,” that being the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, and honestly assess it as being a peculiar work and a strange task. God’s people were not expecting the Messiah to go to a cross, and they were not expecting a single resurrection of a single man in the middle of history to mark the ushering in of the kingdom of God on earth. So peculiar and strange was this that the Apostle Paul spoke of the folly of the cross and its preaching. Nevertheless, as we believe in this work and the One in Whom, by Whom, and through Whom it was accomplished, as he underwent that overwhelming judgment and emerged victorious on the other side, we know that the ultimate power of death has been broken, and that in union with Christ, we are “overrun” (28:18) by the eternal life that comes by the faith that is gifted by God’s Holy Spirit.

Friday, February 19, 2010

What The Lord Says

This is what the Lord says – Amos 1:3a (NET)

The prophet Amos was put in the interesting position of declaring the fact of God’s judgment on the nations that surrounded Israel. He prophesied during the time of the divided kingdom (Israel/North, Judah/South), prior to both the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests. He introduces God’s judgment with evocative words, saying that “The Lord comes roaring out of Zion; from Jerusalem He comes bellowing! The shepherds’ wilt; the summit of Carmel withers” (1:2). With that said, Amos launches into the telling of judgment.

Beginning with Syria, it is written, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Because Damascus has committed three crimes---make that four!---I will not revoke My decree of judgment… I will break the bar on the gate of Damascus’.” (1:3a, 5a) Moving on to the land of the Philistines, we read, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Because Gaza has committed three crimes---make that four!---I will not revoke My decree of judgment… So I will get Gaza’s city wall on fire; fire will consume her fortresses… the rest of the Philistines will also die’.” (1:6a, 7a, 8b) Following that, the prophecy of judgment is directed against Tyre. There, we read, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Because Tyre has committed three crimes---make that four!---I will not revoke My decree of judgment… They failed to observe a treaty of brotherhood. So I will set fire to Tyre’s city wall; fire will consume her fortresses’.” (1:9a,c-10) Continuing on, Amos speaks for the Lord against Edom, writing “This is what the Lord says: ‘Because Edom has committed three crimes---make that four!---I will not revoke My decree of judgment. He chased his brother with a sword; he wiped out his allies. In his anger he tore them apart without stopping to rest; in his fury he relentlessly attacked them. So I will set Teman on fire; fire will consume Bozrah’s fortresses’.” (1:11-12) Looking now to Ammon, we read, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Because the Ammonites have committed three crimes---make that four!---I will not revoke My decree of judgment. They ripped open Gilead’s pregnant women so they could expand their territory. So I will set fire to Rabbah’s city wall; fire will consume her fortresses’.” (1:13-14). Finally, in these decrees about the surrounding nations, we come to Moab and read “This is what the Lord says: ‘Because Moab has committed three crimes---make that four!---I will not revoke My decree of judgment. The burned the bones of Edom’s king into lime. So I will set Moab on fire and it will consume Kerioth’s fortresses. Moab will perish in the heat of battle… I will remove Moab’s leader; I will kill all Moab’s officials with him’.” (2:1-2a,3) All of these pronouncements are punctuated with the phrase “The Lord has spoken!”

One can imagine his hearers in Israel and Judah listening to him with eager and rapt attention, excited about the judgment that was going to rain down upon their enemies and adversaries. We can envision them applauding Amos and his words before something interesting happens. Amos does not stop with Moab, but continues on to say, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Because Judah has committed three covenant transgressions---make that four!---I will not revoke My decree of judgment’.” (2:4a) Before Israel can feel secure, he goes on to report, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Because Israel has committed three covenant transgressions---make that four!---I will not revoke My decree of judgment’.” (2:6a) It is impossible to miss the shift in language. We have gone from hearing about “crimes,” to hearing about “covenant transgressions.” Israel and Judah, as God’s covenant people, clearly were held to a different and higher standard than the surrounding nations. The evil that was bringing God’s judgment upon them was of far greater consequence. Of Judah, God says, “They rejected the Lord’s law; they did not obey His commands. Their false gods, to which their fathers were loyal, led them astray. So I will set Judah on fire, and it will consume Jerusalem’s fortresses” (2:4b-5). This would be fulfilled when the Babylonians would come forth to conquer. Of Israel, God says, “They sold the innocent for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the dirt-covered head of the poor; they push the destitute away” (2:6b-7a). Judah was condemned for idolatry, whereas Israel was called to account for rampant oppression as well as idolatry.

As we move forward, we reach the end of the third chapter, in which God says, “Certainly when I punish Israel for their covenant transgressions, I will destroy Bethel’s altars. The horns of the altar will be cut off and fall to the ground. I will destroy both the winter and summer houses. The houses filled with ivory will be ruined, the great houses will be swept away” (3:14-15a). In the fourth chapter, there is a greater elaboration on Israel’s transgression, as we read, “You oppress the poor; you crush the needy” (4:1b). God’s response to this is to say “Certainly the time is approaching when you will be carried away in baskets, every last one of you in fisherman’s pots” (4:2b). Furthermore, we find God saying, “But surely I gave you no food to eat in any of your cities; you lacked food everywhere you live. Still you did not come back to Me… I withheld rain from you three months before the harvest…. People from two or three cities staggered into one city to get water, but remained thirsty. Still you did not come back to Me. I destroyed your crops with blight and disease. Locusts kept devouring your orchards, vineyards, fig trees, and olive trees. Still you did not come back to Me… I sent against you a plague like one of the Egyptian plagues. I killed your young men with the sword… Still you did not come back to Me” (4:6a, 7a, 8a, 9a, 10a,c).

All of this is quite significant. With these words of what God will do to His people, we find reference to the curses that are set forth in Deuteronomy. When we read “Still you did not come back to me,” we think about what God promised upon national repentance (2 Chronicles 7:14-if My people…), which would be a restoration from the curse of conquering and exile. This is the promise that would be seized upon by Daniel, which leads to Judah being restored to their land (though still in exile), and re-gathered for identification as God’s covenant people. Though Daniel and Judah recognized the curses and repented, Israel, on the other hand, did not. Though God brought His promised curses, this was not productive of repentance. They did not return to Him. What ultimately happened? Israel was conquered by Assyria, scattered through the Assyrian empire, and the ten tribes that made up the kingdom of Israel were dispersed, never to be re-gathered or identified as part of God’s covenant people. “The virgin Israel has fallen down and will not get up again” (5:2a). Truly, God is faithful to His covenant promises and deals seriously with covenant transgressions.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Do Not Fear

Do not fear, My land! Rejoice and be glad, because the Lord has accomplished great things! – Joel 2:21 (NET)

A few verses after this, we find what is perhaps the most famous and well-known statement from the book of Joel, which is “After all of this I will pour out My Spirit on all kinds of people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your elderly will have revelatory dreams; your young men will see prophetic visions. Even on male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days” (2:28-29). This is quoted by Peter, in the second chapter of Acts, in his address to the people of Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. For Peter, this is couched in the necessity of the Resurrection of Jesus. This pouring out of the Spirit can only take place because Christ has been resurrected from the grave and an entirely new age has begun.

Along with this, we must remember, as a basic rule of exegesis, that when New Testament writers or speakers make reference to isolated Old Testament passages, that does not mean that they are merely looking for proof-texts for their opinions, but that they have entire narratives, entire sections of texts, and entire patterns of thought in mind. Though Peter quotes a selection from Joel (2:28-32), we must presume that his hearers would have in mind the entirety of the context from which that selection is lifted.

So looking back to Joel, we must take notice that the twenty-eighth verse begins with “After all of this.” The statement begs the question, “After all of what?” Because what follows is clearly connected with what God is going to do among and through His covenant people, what precedes must speak to the world in which these things will be done. For Joel, it will be as if a new age has dawned, in which He grips the promise of God that “I will make up for the years that the arbeh-locust consumed your crops---the yeleq-locust, the hasil-locust, and the gazam-locust---My great army that I sent against you” (2:25). Because the Bible presents one continuous narrative of creation, fall, cursing, God’s-single-plan-of-salvation-for-the-world, redemption, and restoration, we are justified in thinking about the curse that came upon the ground (the world/creation) because of the fall of Adam (as well as the Torah curses of Deuteronomy) when we read about locust consuming crops.

In this new age, the one that has been inaugurated so that God can pour out His Spirit on all flesh as Peter will say in Acts, God says, “Do not fear, My land! Rejoice and be glad, because the Lord has accomplished great things!” (2:21) This is an age in which God is reversing the curse that mankind brought upon His good creation. God will begin to do this through His covenant people in union with Christ, with that beginning pointing to a final consummation in which a great and final restoration, a final reversal, will take place. God says, “Do not fear, wild animals! For the pastures of the wilderness are again green with grass. Indeed the trees bear their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield to their fullest” (2:22).

In this new age, God speaks to His covenant people, saying “Citizens of Zion, rejoice! Be glad because of what the Lord has done” (2:23a). What has the Lord done? Well, because Peter links all of this with Jesus, we know that He has performed a great work in Christ, and through Him, redeemed a people for Himself from exile. Once again, a new age has been inaugurated. This is an age in which Resurrection power has been brought to bear, with Jesus the first to thoroughly experience that Resurrection power, as the first-fruits of what is to come for God’s people and God’s creation. In this inaugurated age, where Jesus is King, awaiting His final crowning (much like David was anointed king, merely awaiting His final crowning), it is said that “The threshing floors are full of grain; the vats overflow with fresh wine and olive oil” (2:24). Such language speaks to the removal of the thorns and thistles that plague this world.

Through His prophet, God says that in this age “You will have plenty to eat, and your hunger will be fully satisfied; you will praise the name of the Lord your God, Who has acted wondrously in your behalf” (2:26a). Because of what God has wrought---the Resurrection of Christ and the redemption of His people---the promise is made that “My people will never again be put to shame” (2:26b). That is, once God brings His Spirit to bear in this world, His people will never again experience the curse of exile. After declaring that His people will be fully convinced of His power (2:27a), which will take place by the gift of faith by the Spirit, God repeats Himself, saying “My people will never again be put to shame” (2:27b). We do not fear, for everywhere, the Word of God speaks of His faithfulness, Resurrection, redemption, restoration, renewal, and re-creation. In Him, we may confidently trust and rejoice.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Messiah's Renewal

A shoot will grow out of Jesse’s root stock, a bud will sprout from His roots. – Isaiah 11:1 (NET)

With these words, Isaiah speaks of God’s Messiah. He speaks of the King in the line of David, the Son of God, the Son of Man, that will be sent forth to lead God’s people from their exile, via a new exodus, into a new promised land. That promised land is a renewed creation, in which Jesus reigns as King and Lord of all. It was inaugurated at His Resurrection, with His establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, with a renewed Israel, a people under the covenant of belief in Jesus, as the people of God that constitute and serve to establish and expand His kingdom by the operation, through them, of the glorious power of God’s Holy Spirit.

As it is written of the Messiah that “The Lord’s Spirit will rest on Him” (11:2a), so it is to be said of all those in union with Him, through faith, because of His faithfulness. That Spirit is said to be “a spirit that gives extraordinary wisdom” (11:2b), and just as it fell upon and infused our Lord as He walked the earth, so it shall infuse those who believe in Him. The Spirit is one “that provides the ability to execute plans” (11:2c). God executed His saving plan for the world through His Messiah, and it is through that Spirit that God executes His plans for the expansion of His kingdom, through the preaching of the Gospel. By that Spirit---the same Spirit that raised up Christ from the dead---God works through His people to confront the evil to be found in this world, extending His mercy, grace, love, and saving faithfulness to a people and a creation that is beset by pains and sorrows. By that Spirit, God sends forth His people as ambassadors for Christ, making royal declarations on behalf of the world’s true King. Yes, God executes His plans. Because Jesus is a sovereign ruler, the Spirit that produced His absolute loyalty to the will of the Father is the same Spirit “that produces absolute loyalty to the Lord” (11:2d). Of course, this only matters if Jesus was raised up from the dead and lives forevermore.

The new creation, previously mentioned, was inaugurated and goes forth with Resurrection power. As the first man, Adam, was placed in God’s good creation, to tend and steward it as his charge, so the second man, Jesus, was resurrected into a world of God’s creation---a world that was now fundamentally changed because of the power for Resurrection that had been unleashed into the world through its delivery to His lifeless body. We know that Jesus was the first-fruits of those to be raised up from the dead. We know that just as Jesus was raised, so too will we be raised. We know that the creation itself awaits its liberation from its long bondage to corruption. Jesus’ Resurrection into this very creation, along with God’s working through His people to be ambassadors of His light and glory in this world, means that we do not simply await the end of our days or the world’s days, so that we can be whisked off into the blessed, eternal state, of an other-worldly existence. God did not broker a deal with death and corruption, giving over our physical bodies and this world that He created. He intends to redeem the whole.

We do not await the demise of this world. The Scriptures constantly point us to a restoration of this world to the condition for which it was intended by its Creator. This restoration was why He sent forth His Messiah. This restoration is why that Messiah, contrary to all expectations, would suffer and die. This restoration is why that same Messiah, contrary to all expectations, would be physically raised up from the dead. All of this was done to point God’s people to the time in which the final defeat of death would be accomplished, and in which “there will be universal submission to the Lord’s sovereignty” (11:9b). Though that Resurrection power works through us and we share in eternal life, we will most certainly fade and die; but because Jesus was physically raised, with a glorified body, and because we have the promise that we will experience the same, we look to our being raised to a new life and a new creation in which “A wolf will reside with a lamb, and a leopard will lie down with a young goat; an ox and a young lion will graze together, as a small child leads them along” (11:6).

When the curse of exile from God’s original purposes is finally broken, and we are led into the promised land of God’s renewed creation, we will see that “A cow and a bear will graze together, their young will lie down together. A lion, like an ox, will eat straw” (11:7). Because of the Resurrection, “A baby will play over the hole of a snake; over the nest of a serpent an infant will put his hand” (11:8). When Jesus reigns without question, God says, “They will no longer injure or destroy on My entire royal mountain” (11:9a). If we believe this, then it is incumbent upon us to lift up the Gospel of Jesus “like a signal flag for the nations,” so that “Nations will look to Him for guidance and His residence will be majestic” (11:10b).

Wicked Sinners!

Too bad for the wicked sinners! For they will get exactly what they deserve. – Isaiah 3:11 (NET)

We read such words, get a particular mental image, and perhaps we find ourselves relishing such a prospect. “Yes,” we say, “God’s going to get those wicked sinners!” Of course, when we think of “wicked sinners,” what we generally have in mind are the “worldly” people who freely do all of those things that we actually wish we could do, but have “given up” for Jesus. Along with this, we fully expect to be rewarded by our Lord for our rigorous self-denial, and lauded by our God for our austerity. Yes, we will studiously avoid engaging in “worldly” activities, so that we are not lumped with those “wicked sinners” that are so frequently pointed to by the Biblical prophets.

So that we can function well in this state of holy consecration, we are well-served in knowing who it is that the Bible refers to as a wicked sinner. Here in Isaiah, we will find that he explores this theme with an unusual regularity, giving us a great deal of insight into the mind of God and His expectations for His people. To that end, we find that the people that will get exactly what they deserve are the “Oppressors,” that “treat My people cruelly” (3:12a). This cruelty presents itself in the fact that “creditors rule over them” (3:12b). Now, it is one thing to expect re-payment of a legitimate debt, but quite another thing to bring oppressive tactics to bear in the collection or enforcement of that debt. This is especially so as we consider that this prophecy was directed to God’s covenant people, and within it, mention is made of “My people.” The situation is God’s own people treating others of God’s people oppressively in the matter of debt. From Jeremiah, we know that this issue of debt and slavery was one of the reasons for the judgment that God visited upon Judah by Babylon.

Isaiah continues, writing that “My people’s leaders mislead them; they give you confusing directions” (3:12c). Lest we forget, as we read about the actions of the leaders, let us remember that the context is still the wicked sinners of the eleventh verse. Misleading the people and giving them confusing directions and causing them to rebel against the Lord’s royal authority (3:8), to trust in human beings (2:22) and worthless idols (2:18) is what prompts the Lord to take “His position to judge” (3:13a). Indeed, it is for these wicked things that “He stands up to pass sentence on His people” (3:13b). Making further elaboration on those wicked things, so that God’s people will not be confused as to where true wickedness is to be found, Isaiah writes, “It is you who have ruined the vineyard! You have stashed in your houses what you have stolen from the poor. Why do you crush My people and grind the faces of the poor?” (3:14c). These words are directed to “the leaders of His people and their officials” (3:14b). It is with such words that the words of the second Psalm (quoted more often in the New Testament than any other Old Testament passage) rise to mind, and we hear God saying, “So now, you kings, do what is wise; you rulers of the earth, submit to correction! Serve the Lord in fear! Repent in terror! Give sincere homage! Otherwise He will be angry, and you will die because of your behavior, when His anger quickly ignites” (2:10-12a).

This is not an isolated instance in Isaiah, but as has been said, a recurring theme. Moving on to the tenth chapter and keeping the “wicked sinners” in mind, we read that “Those who enact unjust policies are as good as dead, those who are always instituting unfair regulations, to keep the poor from getting fair treatment, and to deprive the oppressed among My people of justice, so they can steal what widows own, and loot what belongs to orphans” (10:1-2). Having provided this continuing description of true wickedness, which would obviously serve to defeat God’s people’s responsibility to be a light to the nations, the Lord asks, “What will you do on judgment day, when destruction arrives from a distant place? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your wealth” (10:3). Can we not see that this question about wealth is intimately connected with the care of orphans and widows? Can we not see that God’s view of wickedness is somewhat different from our customarily held views?

What is God’s response to the activity of such “wicked sinners”? We go on to learn that “A shoot will grow out of Jesse’s root stock, a bud will sprout from his roots. The Lord’s Spirit will rest on Him” (11:1-2a). God’s answer is His Messiah. It is said of Him, and presumably all those that will claim to be in union with Him, that “He will treat the poor fairly, and make right decisions for the downtrodden of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and order the wicked to be executed” (11:4). All of this should give us great pause in our propensity to label things as “wicked” and as “sin.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Stop Sinning

Wash! Cleanse yourselves! Remove your sinful deeds from My sight. Stop sinning! – Isaiah 1:16 (NET)

Earlier in this chapter, we can read that “The sinful nation is as good as dead, the people weighed down by evil deeds” (1:4a). Furthermore, we learn that “They are offspring who do wrong, children who do wicked things” (1:4b). This is clearly not good. What’s more, “They have abandoned the Lord, and rejected the Holy One of Israel” (1:4c). The result of this is that “They are alienated from Him” (1:4d). Isaiah goes on to write about a dreadful and ghastly situation, in which it is said that God’s people “insist on being battered” (1:5a), while adding that it is as if their head has a massive wound (1:5b), and their whole body is weak (1:5c) with bruises and cuts and open wounds that have been left unattended (1:5d). Worse than that, the devastation and desolation that has been brought about by their evil deeds, wicked things, abandoning and rejecting and being alienated from the Lord, means that their land has been devastated and burned with fire, that their crops have been destroyed by foreigners” (1:7).

It is the midst of this that God, through His prophet, tells His people to “Wash! Cleanse yourselves! Remove your sinful deeds from My sight. Stop sinning!” (1:16) A few lines later, God gives His people comforting assurance, saying that “Though your sins have stained you like the color red, you can become white like snow; though they are as easy to see as the color scarlet, you can become like white wool” (1:18b). Furthermore, God extends His mercy, telling His people that if they will simply “Stop sinning,” and rather, “have a willing attitude and obey, they you will again eat the good crops of the land” (1:19). With such a will to obedience, God promises to reverse the curse on the land and the crops. Though God has said “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I look the other way; when you offer your many prayers, I do not listen” (1:15a), we can imagine His reversing promises to extend to this as well.

Here, we remember God’s promise to Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, in which God says, “if My people, who belong to Me, humble themselves, pray, seek to please Me, and repudiate their sinful practices, then I will respond from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). We can find this neatly harmonized with what is being said here in this first chapter of Isaiah. Even though God has said that He will not hear His people’s prayers “because your hands are covered with blood” (1:15b), that He will wash away the stain to make them appear as white as wool. Conversely, in the midst of the merciful extension of His grace, God also warns His people, saying “But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword” (1:20a). To this is appended the ominous and punctuating statement of “Know for certain that the Lord has spoken” (1:20b).

Now we know that the judgment that is promised to fall upon God’s people, according to the book of Deuteronomy, comes first and foremost because of idolatry. Isaiah is clearly alluding to this here in this chapter. Along with failing to keep the Sabbaths and reverence the sanctuary, idolatry (the divine-image-bearer worshiping the creation and therefore giving over his rightful dominion) most clearly represents their abandoning of the Lord and their rejection of their God. However, here in Isaiah, there is more to be found. When God instructs His people to remove their sinful deeds and to stop sinning, calling them a sinful nation, saying that they are weighed down by evil deeds, doing wrong and wicked things, He goes on to give them and us an insight into what He had in mind. We might find ourselves a bit surprised to read, “Learn to do what is right! Promote justice! Give the oppressed reason to celebrate! Take up the cause of the orphan! Defend the rights of the widow!” (1:17)

Those are the words that follow the exhortation to stop their sinning. That is what precedes God’s speaking about their being stained red with their sins that are red as scarlet. It is the failure to do these things that covered their hands with blood, that made God refuse to hear their prayers, to hate their keeping of the feasts that He Himself had ordained and given to them, and to reject their sacrifices (1:11-15). It was the failure to do these things that caused God to compare His own people to Sodom and Gomorrah (1:10). His people were not doing what was right, in that they were defeating justice, causing the oppressed to mourn, turning away from the orphan, and casting off the widow. In stark contrast to those things that we generally want to classify as sins, it was these things that were their evil deeds. This was their sin. Ultimately, they were failing to be God’s light. They were failing to reflect His glory.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Renewed (part 3 of 3)

As he continues his written contemplation of the renewal and restoration that is implied by the Gospel and the Resurrection, Paul writes, “Now the one who prepared us for this very purpose is God” (2 Corinthians 5:5a). This purpose, by way of reiteration, is being clothed with a “heavenly dwelling,” a renewed body that is suited for an existence in the to-be-consummated kingdom of heaven on earth. This purpose is to live beyond despair, instead, living in the light of that “eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (4:17b).

How has God prepared His people for this? Paul says that we are prepared because He “gave us the Spirit as a down payment” (5:5b). That is, the activity of the Holy Spirit, gifting us with faith and causing us to believe in the Gospel and the renewed life to come, is the down payment, or guarantee, of God accomplishing a final redemption through a thorough and complete rescue from the power of death (spiritually and physically). In this state of belief, as we believe in the very thing that is the power of God unto salvation, we can trust that we experience a foretaste of the power of the Resurrection to come. Our union with Christ allows us to share in the power of an indestructible, eternal life. That power, of course, is the same power, by the same Spirit, that raised Christ from the dead, again echoing the eighth chapter of Romans, reminding us that God “will also make your mortal bodies alive through His Spirit Who lives in you” (8:11b). Yes, the activity of the Holy Spirit, by which God brings us into His covenant, is what serves as a reminder that God has a complete work to do for all of His anointed ones. God will accomplish for His people what He accomplished for Jesus---a physical Resurrection into a world that is drastically changed by the presence of His power. In this time and in this world, that power operates as a down payment, but we trust in the full payment to come.

The Apostle Paul firmly believes that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away---look, what is new has come” (5:17). Though we know that our physical bodies are still subject to corruption, to disease, to decay, and yes, to death, Paul makes this declaration. This is what it means to “live by faith, not by sight” (5:7). This is a looking forward to our blessed hope. Paul stands firm on his insistence that the new creation, because of Christ, is something more than merely spiritual. God did not make a deal with death that would allow the grave to keep the bodies of His people, while God gets the souls. That would mean that Christ’s work was incomplete. In light of that, Paul insists that it will be physical, and that both God’s people and God’s creation groans for it. In the midst of any and all evidence to the contrary, as death was a daily experience for those that were putting their faith in Jesus, Paul allows his mind to flee to the refuge of our great hope, with a reminder that “we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (4:18).

Because this was his firmly entrenched belief, rooted in a faith that he believed to have been gifted by God, through His Spirit, because of Jesus’ Resurrection, Paul was constrained to preach this message of the Gospel. Because he actually believed that there was a power of God at work, and because he actually believed that the Holy Spirit could work in hearts and minds and lives in order to shape men and women into the image that God desired them to bear, he writes, “Therefore, because we know the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade people” (5:11a). Paul knew that the message of the Gospel was to be spread through preaching. More than that, he knew that the persuasiveness was to be found in the message itself. Why? Well, because Paul did not give lip service to God’s power and the work of the Holy Spirit, but as has been said, he firmly believed that the Gospel itself was the power of God.

The Apostle Paul stood in reverential awe (fear) at what God had done, was doing, and would do through Christ, His Resurrection, and through the preaching of the message. “Therefore,” Paul goes on to write, “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His plea through us” (5:20a). Paul knew that God was not making His plea through those that carried the message, but that the message of power made its own plea. Paul, knowing that he himself had undergone such a radical transformation, had a keen understanding of the power of the testimony of Jesus as Lord. He knew himself to be a new creation in which the old had passed away. He believed in a God that was faithful to His covenant promises, so the fifth chapter closes with Paul writing about Jesus, saying that “in Him we would become the righteousness of God” (5:21b). He knew that in union with Christ, carrying His Gospel message into the world, believers themselves become the manifestation of God’s covenant faithfulness, and the source of God’s blessing of restoration and renewal for the world.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Renewed (part 2)

As Paul moves on to the second verse of the chapter, he causes us to encounter a powerful and interesting word that he uses to great effect elsewhere in his writings. We read, “For in this earthly house we groan, because we desire to put on our heavenly dwelling” (2 Corinthians 5:2). Upon reading the word “groan,” we cannot help but be forced to contemplate the eighth chapter of Romans, where Paul writes, “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23).

In both letters, the groaning is linked. Just as the creation groans in anticipation of being “set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children” (Romans 8:21), so we too groan with the same desire. That desire, which comes as “the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groaning” (8:26b), is to move past the age in which we live with these physical bodies that wear away--- in this age of fallen man and a cursed earth in which “the creation was subjected to futility” (8:20a)---so that we might put on our heavenly dwelling. That heavenly dwelling is the physical body that will be suited to exist in God’s new creation. That heavenly dwelling is that same body that Christ put on through Resurrection power, in which He walked this earth for a brief period in God’s newly inaugurated new creation.

Just as Jesus was raised up with that new body from out of the grave, so too shall we who have believed upon Christ and His Gospel, be raised up with that new body when the final resurrection comes to pass and all things are restored. The creation itself does not groan after a disembodied spiritual existence as its final hope. How could it? The creation groans for a renewal, and a time when all thorns and thistles will disappear and the lion will lay down with the lamb. The creation does not have heaven as its final hope, and neither do those in union with Christ. Since we groan in the same way as the creation, we also groan for a renewal which takes us beyond heaven, to the other side of heaven, as our ultimate hope. Paul looks forward to this heavenly house, this body that is suited for the kingdom of heaven that ultimately is God’s restored creation, writing that “after we have put on our heavenly house, we will not be found naked” (2 Corinthians 5:3). That is, we will not be without a body, but we will have the experience of a renewed physicality, as did Christ upon His Resurrection, here in this re-constituted world where our Lord rules and where God dwells with His people.

Continuing with this theme, Paul goes on and writes, “For we groan while we are on this tent, since we are weighed down, because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (5:4). Once again, we are able to correlate our groaning with the groaning of creation, as well as our similar groaning that is so carefully detailed in the eighth chapter of Romans. We groan in this tent, in this perishable body that will run down and decay. We groan because we look forward to a body that will never run down and never decay and never die, because the power of sin and death was defeated at the cross and triumphed over in our Lord’s Resurrection. We groan because of the anticipation of being fully clothed, being fully human, properly bearing the image of God as we were designed to do before the great rebellion in which man first realized that he was unclothed.

Though man was first naked before God before the fall, he was truly clothed; but just as did Adam and Eve, we now carry the realization that we are unclothed, desirous of re-gaining, through God’s great victory in Christ, the good creation that existed before the fall. Not only will that creation be re-gained, and not only will we re-gain our true clothing, but that creation and clothing will be enhanced and made into something truly unknown and glorious, having been experienced by only one person in all of history, because of the awesome power of God that was put forth in the Resurrection. We experience that power through the preaching and living of the Gospel, by which it is at work in this world, though we do not experience the fullness of its power. That day, however, will come. In that day, what is mortal, what can and will die, will be, as Paul writes, completely “swallowed up by life.”

Friday, February 12, 2010

Renewed (part 1)

Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. – 2 Corinthians 4:16 (NET)

Paul’s words point us toward the great hope of the Christian. The great hope of those that are in union with Christ, confessing and submitting to Him as Lord, is our final renewal. Here, Paul expresses it in terms of the day by day renewal of our inner person. Here, we can imagine Paul drawing on Jeremiah’s Lamentations, where we read that “The Lord’s loyal kindness never ceases; His compassions never end. They are fresh every morning; Your faithfulness is abundant!” (3:22-23) Yes, those in union with Christ share in His Resurrection life, renewed day by day, and sharing in eternal life here and now, even though our daily experience is that our physical body is wearing away. That wearing away will eventually result in death. However, this expectation of renewal and restoration is based upon the fact of the Resurrection of Christ and its implication for humanity and for God’s good creation.

Because it is a hope and an expectation, Paul writes that “we are not looking at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen” (4:18a). There is faith here. It is a gift that is given by God’s Spirit, in the accompaniment of the preaching of the power of God for salvation, which is the Gospel. It cannot be seen, “For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (4:18b). Yes, our physical body is wearing away each and every day, but what we cannot see---and instead trust by faith because Christ was raised from the dead and because we are in union with Him and share His life through belief in Him as Lord by the movement of the Holy Spirit---is that we have been made to share in His eternal life. That gift of eternal life is unseen, though we catch glimpses of it when God works through us to be “a sweet aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved…a fragrance from life to life…speaking in Christ before God as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God” (2:15a, 16b, 17b).

Paul continues with this theme of the contrast being the physical body that wears away, and the inner, unseen person being renewed day by day through the power of the Spirit and the Gospel, carrying it forward into the fifth chapter. Paul writes, “For we know that if our earthly house, the tent we live in, is dismantled, we have a building from God, a house not built by human hands, that is eternal in the heavens” (5:1). The tent we live in, this tent of human flesh, is being dismantled. This seems to be another way of indicating that it will be worn away. As was said, we will all die. In this though, we do not despair. We do not lose heart. Why should we? “We have a building from God,” as Paul says, “a house not built by human hands.” Is this the “many dwelling places in My Father’s house” (John 14:2a) that we hear Jesus mentioning in the Gospel of John? Of course not. There is no need to shift our thoughts away from what it is that Paul is presenting. He is talking about the body.

What we will receive from God will be enduring, rather than temporary, like a building or a house, as opposed to a tent. It is a house not built by human hands, in that it is not something that is or can be produced through the course of nature. It requires God’s action. It requires a great transformation. It requires the application of God’s power in the same way that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ was transformed from a tent that could be dismantled, to a building that would endure. His body was transformed into a form that would be eternal, and more than that, would be suited for the kingdom of heaven, which has been inaugurated here in this world, and which will ultimately be consummated here in this world when Christ finally ushers in the completion of God’s kingdom.

This is what we are to be expecting because of our union with Christ, and we have a taste of it day by day when God’s power flows through us to deal with the effects of sin that we find all around us. As the body of our Lord was transformed by the delivery of Resurrection power, so too are we transformed into the image that God would have us to bear day by day, and so too will we be transformed by that same Resurrection power, so as to provide us with a body, a building from God, that will be suited for His glorious and eternal new creation.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

One Shepherd Forever

My servant David will be king over them; there will be one shepherd for all of them. – Ezekiel 37:24a (NET)

Who are the “them” to whom this statement is referring? Because this is in the book of Ezekiel, we know that it is God’s covenant people Israel. In fact, God is here speaking of a unified people of Israel, as it is written that “They will never again be two nations and never again be divided into two kingdoms” (37:22b). God has said that He “will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel, and one king will rule over them all” (37:22a). That one king is the one referred to as “My servant David,” who would be the “one shepherd for all of them.” We go on to read that “They will live in the land I gave to My servant Jacob, in which your fathers lived; they will live in it---they and their children and their grandchildren forever, David My servant will be prince over them forever” (37:25). Now, because this was written in the sixth century before Christ, we know that this is not possibly an actual reference to King David of Israel, but to the messiah of Israel to come, the son of David, the shepherd of Israel.

Jesus, of course, refers to Himself with such terminology. He calls Himself the good shepherd. He lays claim to the role and title of Messiah, and therefore, by extension, to being the king in the line of David. The conception of the messiah at the time of Christ was that he would be the ruler of Israel, and that under his God-ordained rule, Israel would rule all nations. Therefore, Israel’s messiah was to be the ruler of the world in the inaugurated kingdom of God. We put aside the nationalistic colorings contained in this conception, and as Christians, we hold to this same idea. We believe that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah, and that as Israel’s Messiah, He does indeed rule over all nations and all powers, as king of the kingdom of God that was inaugurated with power at His Resurrection. That kingdom consists of a renewed humanity (renewed Israel) that is made up of all those that are in union with Christ through a belief in Him as Lord of all (the Gospel).

It is because of that union with Christ that we are able to think of ourselves as renewed Israel, that is, as the people by which God intends to get glory through the Spirit-empowered spreading of the knowledge of Himself, that we can look to this passage in Ezekiel and revel in the promises that it presents. In contemplation of that, we read that “This is what the sovereign Lord says: Look, I am about to take the Israelites from among the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from round about and bring them to their land” (37:21b). By the power inherent in the preaching of the Gospel, and the faith that is engendered by that preaching, God has been and is still gathering a people for His kingdom. Rather than this being limited to ethnic Israel alone, this renewed Israel is gathered from all nations. Yes, as we have already seen, God promises to make them one nation in the land, on the mountain of Israel (promised land), with no division between Jew and Gentile, but one people, never again divided into two nations or kingdoms, and placed in the land of promise, with one king, one shepherd, Jesus, to rule them all.

God says that He will gather them and bring them to their land. Just as Israel was brought into their land of promise following their exodus from Egypt, renewed Israel, a renewed humanity, looks to a promised land. What is that promised land? It is a renewed creation. It is the deliverance from its bondage to decay and corruption and death for which the entire creation groans in its suffering (Romans 8:22). It is a return to the land that was given up by our father Adam, when he failed to trust God, which was the very good creation into which he was placed to bear God’s image, to have dominion, and to steward. Just as exiled Israel is promised a return to the land that God gave to their father Jacob, which was the land in which their forefathers had lived, so too will exiled-though-renewed Israel, a people brought forth from all of mankind, be brought to live in the land in which their first father had lived, which was Eden, God’s perfect creation. God says that such a land will be occupied by the children and grandchildren of His covenant people, and that this occupancy will endure forever. Here, it is said, that His king will rule forever. This is indeed a dominion which shall not pass away and a kingdom that will not be destroyed (Daniel 7:14).

As we move through the close of this chapter, we must take heed to the words that are used in addition to the repeated use of “forever” that have already been seen. God says, “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be a perpetual covenant with them. I will establish them, increase their numbers, and place my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be My people. Then, when My sanctuary is among them forever, the nations will know that I, the Lord, sanctify Israel” (37:26-28). Perpetual and forever are how our God describes the land into which He will bring His renewed people. He will do this when, hearkening back to both Israel and Adam, He “saves them from all their unfaithfulness by which they sinned” (37:23b). God says that He “will purify them” (37:23c), and in that purification, which we can understand to be His bringing to belief in the Gospel through the Spirit that makes manifest His covenant faithfulness, “they will become My people and I will become their God” (37:23d).

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Become A Christian? (part 2)

Nevertheless, Paul replies, “I have not lost my mind, most excellent Festus” (the use of which should make us think about the “most excellent Theophilus” to whom Luke & Acts are addressed), “but am speaking true and rational words” (26:25). Likewise, Paul’s insistence on the fact that his words are both “true and rational” points us to the “many convincing proofs” of the third verse of the first chapter of Acts. The words used for “convincing proofs” imply evidence that could be presented in a courtroom setting as irrefutable proof of the facts of a case. True and rational indeed.

Paul goes on to add, “For the king knows about these things, and I am speaking freely to him, because I cannot believe that any of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner” (26:26). So not only is Agrippa familiar with the terminology and substance of the things about which Paul is speaking, but Paul implies that Agrippa is also aware of what happened to Jesus, what is being said about Him, and about the vendetta that is being pursued against His ever-increasing band of followers and confessors.

Paul continues and says, “Do you believe the prophets, King Agrippa? I know that you believe” (26:27). This puts Agrippa on the spot. With this reference to the prophets and Agrippa’s belief in what has been written, it seems that Paul might have some inside information about Agrippa’s stance concerning the claims being made about Jesus. Agrippa, perhaps taken aback by what Paul has said, defensively and perhaps even nervously replies, “In such a short time are you persuading me to become a Christian?” (26:28)

This is quite the interesting statement/question, with dramatic implications. You see, this is not about whether Paul was trying to get Agrippa to confess Jesus and so be saved, or to have a personal religious experience, or convert to a new religion. This use of “Christian” by Agrippa would probably have caused Festus to perk up his ears. Christian? This word was not used to identify someone’s religion. This word was used in a political context. Christians, or “kristianos” in the Greek, were being identified as such, in contrast to being “kaisarianos,” or “Caesar-people.” A Christian, in that day, was somebody that looked to Jesus of Nazareth, the One that had been crucified on a Roman cross, as Messiah and Lord and King and Son of God. These were all titles of Caesar, as the Caesar-cult held him up and worshiped him as the son of god. In this situation, it is highly probable that we are correct to understand Agrippa’s statement to Paul along such lines.

Proclamations concerning Jesus, by His followers, made the claim that He was the true King and Ruler of the world, and that even Caesar was subject to Him. It was counter-imperial and subversive statements such as these that would get people crucified or thrown to the lions. At the same time, this also causes us to look back to Paul’s statement about the Messiah being a light to both Israel and the Gentiles, as Caesar Augustus was hailed as the man who had brought the world out of darkness, while the darkness was kept at bay by the “pax Romana” (Roman peace) that continued to suffuse light through the world under the dominion of the Caesar’s that followed.

This created dangerous territory for Agrippa, as he sits here before the Rome-appointed governor as the Rome-appointed, Rome-supported king. A confession by Agrippa of anything that remotely resembled a belief that what Paul was saying about Jesus was true, was going to be very bad for him, as it could be looked upon as treasonous. Paul, in what appears to be an understanding of Agrippa’s situation, responds by saying, “I pray to God that whether in a short or a long time not only you but also all those who are listening to me today could become such as I am, except for these chains” (26:29). “Yes,” Paul says, “I believe everybody should submit to this message of the Gospel, recognizing Jesus as Lord and King.”
As this story comes to an end, “the king got up, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them” (26:30). Understandably, this engagement has given them much to think about, so “as they were leaving they said to one another, ‘This man is not doing anything deserving death or even imprisonment’.” (26:31) In this, and in what follows, as “Agrippa said to Festus, ‘This man could have been released if he had not appealed to Caesar’” (26:32), we can almost hear a tacit agreement, from the mouth of Agrippa, with the claims that Paul has made.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Become A Christian? (part 1)

Agrippa said to Paul, “In such a short time are you persuading me to become a Christian?” – Acts 26:28 (NET)

The Apostle Paul is “on trial” in Caesarea. He has been there for quite some time. He had been taken prisoner while in Jerusalem, and later transferred to Caesarea, into the custody of the Roman governor named Felix, with whom Paul seemed to enjoy a cordial relationship. Felix had been succeeded in his position by a man named Festus. Sometime after taking his position, Festus was in Jerusalem. There, “the chief priests and most prominent men of the Jews brought formal charges against Paul to him…they urged Festus to summon him (Paul) to Jerusalem, planning an ambush to kill him along the way” (25:2b, 3b). However, “Festus replied that Paul was being kept at Caesarea, and he himself intended to go there shortly. ‘So,’ he said, ‘let your leaders to down there with me, and if this man has done anything wrong, they may bring charges against him’.” (25:4-5) When the accusations and charges were then leveled against Paul in Caesarea, he replied by stating that “I have committed no offense against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar” (25:8).

While Festus was in Caesarea, “King Agrippa and Bernice arrived…to pay their respects” (25:13b). This “Agrippa” was “Herod Agrippa,” one of the Idumean, Roman-sanctioned kings of a large region of Palestine, as well as the final member of the Herodian dynasty. No doubt finding the situation of Paul to be an interesting one, “Festus explained Paul’s case to the king to get his opinion” (25:14b). Upon hearing the story, “Agrippa said to Festus, ‘I would also like to hear the man myself’.” (25:22a) This tells us a little bit about Agrippa, as well as effectively setting the stage for the events that followed.

Entering upon the scene, we find that “Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You have permission to speak for yourself’.” (26:1a) Paul seized upon this opportunity to preach the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He spoke of the “hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors” (26:6b), and posed the question as to “Why do you people think it is unbelievable that God raises the dead?” (26:8). This hope of resurrection itself was part of the great hope held by the people of Israel, which is why Paul poses the question in such a way in relation to his insistence that Jesus was raised from the dead. Following that, Paul offers testimony concerning his own experience while on his way to Damascus, as he had been on his way to imprison and sentence to death those who were proclaiming this message about Jesus.

As we bear in mind that Paul is presenting his case to a king in the Herodian line, at least one of whom had proclaimed himself as Israel’s messiah, we do well to remember that Agrippa would have had an understanding of messianic expectations and their implications. Therefore, we understand why Paul says, “so I stand testifying to both small and great, saying nothing except what the prophets and Moses said was going to happen: that the Christ was going to suffer and be the first to rise from the dead, to proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (26:22b). This calling of Jesus “Christ” or “Messiah” was significant, in that Agrippa was well aware what such a title implied, as it pointed to the exaltation of Israel and its messiah above all nations, including Rome and its Caesar.

Though this would not have been unfamiliar to Agrippa, it may very well have been so for Festus. So he “exclaimed loudly, ‘You have lost your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane!’” (26:24b) Not only does this serve to point out that Paul had a reputation as a learned and well-studied man, but it also points out that all of this talk of the hope in God’s promise, the resurrection of the dead, and of the messiah, was completely lost on this Roman governor. He was not able to operate inside a 1st century Jewish mindset that was familiar with all of these terms. We, unfortunately, too often suffer from the same malady in our attempts to correctly approach and understand the message of the New Testament.